Mary Robinson.jpg

Former President of Ireland and United Nations (UN) High Commissioner Mary Robinson spoke from across the pond during an MSU live event that took place on Thursday, April 9. Robinson’s presentation focused on leadership, education and advocacy for the poor and disempowered who are disproportionately threatened by climate change. The virtual event was open to both MSU students and the public. 

Robinson served as the first female president of Ireland from 1990 to 1997 and is known for creating the modern image of Ireland. Robinson said during her interview with The Exponent that this was the result of  “constantly questioning the social environment in Ireland when I was growing up because it was very unequal for women. For example, there were so many laws that discriminated against women.” Robinson joined the Irish Senate at the age of 25 and her first policy change legalized family planning. She produced the bill that would allow Irish women to have access to contraceptives and legalized condoms. “Very Catholic Ireland at the time caused me to be a very unpopular figure and that disturbed me as a young woman who was quite successful in what I was doing and suddenly I became a hate figure,” Robinson said. “I was so affected by early criticism. Then I realized that I believe in what I’m doing. I’m going to continue to do it. I’m going to just carry on with what I’m doing because I believe it will be better for the future of Ireland.”

After her presidency, she established the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice, served as the UN secretary-general’s special envoy on climate justice, was the UN high commissioner for human rights and co-founded the Council of Women World Leaders. Robinson is also the author of “Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future.” In addition, she is a founding member of The Elders, a non-governmental organization of public figures who are also peace activists, human rights advocates and statespeople, and was appointed chair in 2018.

In her lecture, Robinson first explored five layers of injustice, including injustices found in communities and nature. Next, Robinson spoke on the ways COVID-19 has influenced society. She shared the idea that COVID-19 has taught us that collective human behavior matters, government matters at all levels and compassion matters. Additionally, she said we must listen to climate scientists in the same way we have listened to scientists during the entirety of the epidemic.

This idea brought her to her final thoughts. Robinson said that climate change is much more than a politicized issue and everyone must take responsibility as this is the most important decade to bend the warming curve and get onto the right track. According to Robinson and climate scientists, if Earth’s average annual temperature rises by two degrees Celsius there will be catastrophic effects to the environment, including the loss of coral reefs and glacial ice melting. She explained that reducing greenhouse gas emissions can also save lives, considering 8.7 million people have already died from air pollution caused by carbon emissions in 2018. In order for humans to lessen our impact, Robinson said each individual needs to make the climate crisis personal, get angry with those who hold great power and imagine the planet we need. Robinson finished her talk by pointing to her half-full glass of water and saying that we must “make it work and build forward.”

“I think young people need to interrupt more. It’s very different from when I was growing up when we respectfully listened to the elders who gave us the wisdom. That’s not the case now,” Robinson said. “It’s a real conversation because young people are so connected. They understand the world. They’re in touch with things. Young people come fresh to ideas, come fresh to possibilities and it’s a wonderful conversation.”

Robinson has hope for the future and says, “I spend a lot of time thinking about what the world will be like in 2030 and I like what I think about. It will be a much healthier world. We will hear the birds sing and we live in a way that’s closer to nature because that is the wisdom we’ve learned.”